Saturday, October 27, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/26/18

A Northwoods Almanac for Oct. 26 – Nov. 8, 2018  

Hawk Ridge
            A host of scheduling conflicts made it impossible for Mary and I to visit Duluth’s Hawk Ridge this fall, and we missed a good year! Their fall migration count as of 10/22 was 211,088 individual birds from 199 species. A breakdown of some of those numbers may be surprising: 17% (34,917) of the total were robins, 13% (26,455) were blue jays, 10% (20,503) were various species of warblers, and 5% (10,311) were cedar waxwings.
Within the raptors, broad-winged hawks, as always, have led the way with 8% (17,762) of the total. Sharp-shinned hawks are currently a distant second at 5% (11,122) of the total. 

kettle of hawks
            Some other notable numbers included 10,083 Canada geese, 10,051 purple finches, 8,918 common nighthawks, and 3,550 bald eagles. Another 19,276 songbirds were unidentifiable.  
            I’m always astonished at the accuracy of their species counts – this is truly difficult to do!  But the counters are among the best in the country and have decades of experience conducting other counts all around the U.S. I’ve stood near them while they’re counting, and I can attest to their extraordinary skill.
I’ve touted the count at Hawk Ridge for many years, because it’s one of the two or three highest on the continent north of Mexico. From 1991 to 2013, the average yearly number of raptors observed at Hawk Ridge has been 76,000, comprised of 16 regular hawk species.
            The large raptors like bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and northern goshawks are still coming through, so if you have the inclination, consider taking the drive – see www.hawkridge.orgfor directions and advice on when to visit.

Sightings – Tamaracks, Dark-eyed Juncos, Snow Buntings
            Tamaracks have peaked in color. Aldo Leopold wrote in his Sand County Almanac, “There are two times to hunt [ruffed grouse] in Adams County: ordinary times, and when the tamaracks are smoky gold. This is written for those luckless ones who have never stood, gun empty and mouth agape, to watch the golden needles come sifting down, while the feathery rocket that knocked them off sails unscathed into the jackpines.” 
            One doesn’t need to hunt grouse in the Northwoods to experience those golden needles sifting down during a late October wind. Tamarack’s gold marks the last major light show of autumn. Nearly all of our deciduous trees have now cut their leaves loose, except for the oaks and ironwoods who just can’t seem to let go of their season’s work. 

tamaracks along DuPage Lake

            Dark-eyed juncos are omnipresent now in the north country as they work their way south. They are easily distinguished by their white tail feathers that scissor open and closed when they take flight. They’re super-common – the most recent estimate of their North American population is 630 million! 
East of Mississippi River, female juncos tend to migrate farther south than males, but all adults migrate farther than hatching-year birds. This process, called differential migration, results in a general segregation of sex and age classes. For instance, since females migrate the furthest south, in Michigan only 20% of the wintering population will be female on average, while in Alabama, 72% of the total will typically be female.

            The last passerines to migrate through our area are often snow buntings, and the first few of these birds are now being seen locally. Many snow buntings don’t even come this far south – their winter range extends as far north as some low arctic regions, and thus overlaps the southern limits of their breeding range. Those snow buntings desirous of the warmest winters only make it as far south as central Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Females appear to winter further south than males, demonstrating again while females may the wisest of the genders.
            Snow buntings are a circumpolar species, meaning they breed worldwide all around the farthest high arctic regions from Greenland to Finland to Russia to far northern Canada. They often migrate in small loose flocks of up to 30 birds, so look for them in groups particularly in open weedy and grassy fields, along roadsides, and along shorelines. When they settle down for the winter, they seem to prefer winter farm fields where manure has been spread since undigested seeds can often be found in manure. 

photo by Cherie Smith

Copper vs. Lead
I just read a piece written last fall by a deer hunter on why he uses copper bullets rather than lead. Here’s what he said: “As I hunted deer today, I sat within sight of the gut pile from the doe I killed two days ago. Much of it had been eaten already, but what remained was dined upon by two bald eagles, three ravens, two pileated woodpeckers, one hairy woodpecker, several blue jays, and numerous chickadees and nuthatches.
“Which is why I switched to copper bullets. Birds are highly susceptible to lead poisoning, and lead bullets fragment into tiny shards, some of which end up in the entrails we hunters leave behind after field dressing our deer. The tiniest amount of lead ingested by a bird can lead to a miserable slow death. 
“As a hunter, I do everything I can to make a swift, humane end to my prey’s life. Why then would I want to cause other animals to linger in pain? No. Just as it is my responsibility to avoid needless suffering for those animals I hunt, I believe I owe the same ethic to those that scavenge the remains. Copper bullets are every bit as effective on deer, rarely disintegrate in the animal, and if they do, the fragments are non-toxic to birds.”
Carrol Henderson, a hunter and an educator with the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota, sums it up nicely, “A good bullet should not kill twice.” 
The copper vs lead debate has been going on for years, and I’m quite certain I’ll not end it in this column. However, if you work as a wildlife rehabber, like Mark Naniot at Wild Instincts near Rhinelander or Marge Gibson at Raptor Education group in Antigo, there’s nothing to debate. Marge notes, “Our costs to chelate birds from lead poisoning is massive, up to $2000 per eagle, and sadly we see many of them in the fall after hunting season begins.”
A study published in 2012 by University of Minnesota researchers investigated whether lead poisoning in bald eagles was connected to their consumption of lead-tainted deer remains. The study relied on data from 1,277 sick or injured bald eagles admitted to The Raptor Center between January 1996 and December 2009. Blood tests showed lethal levels of lead in 334 eagles. 
I’m highly supportive of deer hunting, so I hope no one thinks this is an anti-hunting essay. I wish deer hunters all good fortune this fall. I’d simply love to see all hunters use copper bullets.

September Temperatures
From NOAA: “With global records dating back to 1880, the September 2018 global temperature across the world's land and ocean surfaces was 0.78°C (1.40°F) above the 20th century average of 15.0°C (59.0°F) – tying with 2017 as the fourth highest September temperature in the 139-year record. The ten warmest September global land and ocean surface temperatures have occurred since 2003, with the last five years (2014–2018) comprising the five warmest Septembers on record. September 2015 is the record warmest September at +0.93°C (+1.67°F). September 2018 also marks the 42nd consecutive September and the 405th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th century average (see” 
On the other hand, October temperatures, at least in our region, have clearly been below normal.
Please remember the difference, however, between weather on any given day/week and climate data recorded over many years. A colder than normal day, or a warmer than normal day for that matter, is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. 
I liken it to human health. You can be ill for a few days, but your overall health can be excellent. Conversely, you can feel fine for months, but you may be seriously declining in health due to a long-term disease. 
Sports analogies work well, too. I can go 0 for 4 batting today or 4 for 4, but the impact on my batting average over the entire year will be miniscule.
So, it will be interesting to see what temperatures were recorded in October around the globe as compared to our cold experience in northern Wisconsin. 
And wouldn’t you know, the long-term forecast for our area calls for above average temperatures in November. We’ll see if we end up with what seems like a reversal of normal conditions for these two months.

Celestial Events
            For viewing of planets in November, look after dusk for Mars in the south and Saturn low in the southwest. Before dawn, look for Venus very low in the southeast.
            November 3rdbrings us just 10 hours of daylight as we continue to race toward winter solstice. Look for the peak south Taurid meteor shower before dawn on 11/5. The midpoint between autumn equinox and winter solstice occurs on 11/7, as does this month’s new moon.

Thought for the week
            Last Saturday, 10/20, provided us with our first accumulating snow. We often get a snow or two in October, which typically melts soon afterwards as this snow did. It’s always interesting, however, to hear the various responses to the snow, each of which vary widely from sheer panic or disgust to superlatives regarding the beauty of it all. Since our response to any natural event is always a personal choice, I’ve come to appreciate the following quote: “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/12/18

CAFE Standards, Climate Change, and The Story We Need to Tell
In July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with the help of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE), issued a “Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS) for The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule for Model Year 2021–2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks.” This Draft EIS analyzed the direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental impacts of nine possible alternative fuel economy standards as mandated by The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 (EPCA). You may recall yet another acronym – CAFE – the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, and this is what is addressed in the report. CAFE was enacted by Congress after the 1973–74 Arab Oil Embargo to improve the average fuel economy of cars and light trucksand thus to help get us off our dependency on foreign oil. 
Mileage standards are a big deal because in 2016, the transportation sector accounted for 78 percent of total U.S. petroleum consumption. Thus, this 500+ page report goes to great lengths to describe the impacts each alternative would have on our lives.
To calculate the cumulative impacts of these alternatives, the report had no choice but to discuss how each would also impact climate change. And here’s where the far bigger story emerged, because this report was produced from a department within the Trump administration. The report goes into great detail on exactly what is known about climate change to date, and what the science says will happen by the year 2100.
Here is my best attempt at directly quoting the most salient points, but please read the report for yourself ( there is far more to it than I can fit into this column.
“Global climate change refers to longterm (i.e., multi-decadal) trends in global average surface temperature, precipitation, ice cover, sea level, cloud cover, seasurface temperatures and currents, ocean pH, and other climatic conditions. Average surface temperatures have increased since the Industrial Revolution. From 1880 to 2016, Earth’s global average surface temperature rose by more than 0.9°C (1.6°F).” 
“Global mean sea level rose by about 1.0 to 1.7 millimeters per year from 1901 to 1990, a total of 11 to 14 centimeters (4 to 5 inches). After 1993, global mean sea level rose at a faster rate of about 3 millimeters (0.12 inches) per year. Consequently, global mean sea level has risen by about 7 centimeters (3 inches) since 1990, and by 16 to 21 centimeters (7 to 8 inches) since 1900.”
“Global atmospheric COconcentration has increased 44.6 percent from approximately 278 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 to approximately 403 ppm in 2016. Atmospheric concentrations of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) increased approximately 150 and 20 percent, respectively, over roughly the same period.” 
 “In recent decades, annual average precipitation increases have been observed across the Midwest, Great Plains, Northeast, and Alaska, while decreases have been observed in Hawaii, the Southeast and the Southwest. Nationally, there has been an average increase of 4 percent in annual precipitation from 1901 to 2016.”
“Rising temperatures across the United States have reduced total snowfall, lake ice, seasonal snow cover, sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost over the last few decades.”
“Climate change threatens forests by increasing tree mortality and forest ecosystem vulnerability due to fire, insect infestations, drought, disease outbreaks, and extreme weather events. Currently, tree mortality is increasing globally due in part to high temperatures and drought.”
 “Recent global satellite and ground-based data have identified phenologyshifts, including earlier spring events such as breeding, budding, flowering, and migration, which have been observed in hundreds of plant and animal species.”
“Isotopic- and inventorybased studies have indicated that the rise in the global COconcentration is largely a result of the release of carbon that has been stored underground through the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) used to produce electricity, heat buildings, and power motor vehicles and airplanes, among other uses.”
So, let me summarize – this report clearly states climate change is real, it’s ongoing, and it’s largely due to the combustion of fossil fuels. 
            More importantly, what about the future cumulative impacts of continuing burning fossil fuels the way we have been? Again, these are all direct quotes from the report.
“The cumulative impact on sea-level rise from the scenarios show sea-level rise in 2100 ranging from 70.22 centimeters (27.65 inches) under the No Action Alternative to 70.28 centimeters (27.67 inches) under Alternative 1.” (Note: the “No Action Alternative” is to keep the CAFE standards as they currently are. “Alternative 1” is the administration’s preferred alternative, which reduces these standards.)
“Under the No Action Alternative, assuming an emissions scenario that considers a moderate global effort to reduce GHG emissions, the cumulative global mean surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.216°C (2.189°F) by 2040, 1.810°C (3.260°F) by 2060, and 2.838°C (5.108°F) by 2100.”
            “The band of estimated COconcentrations as of 2100 is narrow, ranging from 687.3 ppm under the No Action Alternative to 687.9 ppm under Alternative 1 and Alternative 2.” (Note: currently we are at 410 ppm CO2, the highest ever recorded). 
            “The frequency and magnitude of the heaviest precipitation events is projected to increase everywhere in the United States. Floods that are closely tied to heavy precipitation events, such as flash floods and urban floods, as well as coastal floods related to sea-level rise and the resulting increase in storm surge height and inland impacts, are expected to increase.”
            “Dry spells are also projected to increase in length in most regions, especially in the southern and northwestern portions of the contiguous United States . . . analyses using higher emissions scenarios project with high confidence that the western United States will see chronic, long-duration hydrological droughts . . . A dramatic increase in the area burned by wildfire is projected in the contiguous United States through 2100, especially in the West. Tree species are predicted to shift their geographic distributions to track future climate change.”
            “Both globally and in the United States, sea-level rise, storms and storm surges, and changes in surface water and groundwater use patterns are expected to compromise the sustainability of coastal freshwater aquifers and wetlands.”
            “Rural livelihoods are less diverse than their urban counterparts are and are frequently dependent on natural resources that have unknown future availability such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry . . . Due to this lack of economic diversity, climate change will place disproportionate stresses on the stability of these rural communities . . . Tourism patterns could be affected by changes to the length and timing of seasons, temperature, precipitation, and severe weather events . . . Changes in the economic values of traditional recreation and tourism locations will affect rural communities because tourism makes up a significant portion of rural land use.”
“Climate change, particularly changes in temperatures, could change the range, abundance, and disease-carrying ability of disease vectors such as mosquitoes or ticks. This, in turn, could affect the prevalence and geographic distribution of diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, plague, tularemia, malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya virus, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and Zika virus in human populations.” 
            “Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and surface extent on land, lakes, and sea, with this loss of ice expected to continue. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century under future scenarios that assume continued growth in global emissions, although sea ice would still form in winter.” 
And, finally, what about irreversibility? “A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from COemissions (e.g., global mean temperature increase, and a decrease in ocean pH) is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale . . . Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic COemissions.”
            There’s lots more, but let’s leave it at that – please remember this is a report released in July by the current administration, so it can’t be framed as a liberal “hoax.”
            I write about this now for two reasons. One, to try my best to help all of us, whatever our political beliefs, understand what is at stake, and to see that this is truly not a partisan issue. The climate cares not one iota what party you or I belong to, nor will our kids and grandkids care in 2050.
And two, to help us understand this is an issue for all humanity to come together around and to respond to with courage, friendships, and inventiveness against what appears to be overwhelming odds. To paraphrase one author, if climate change were an asteroid, alien invasion or Hitler type, we’d know exactly what to throw at it, which is everything we’ve got.
            The new climate story we must begin to tell is one of overcoming the odds rather than giving in and “adapting,” because there isn’t any real adapting to this future climate scenario. The new story we need to live has to be about our courage to fight for what we believe in, which can be as simple as believing in giving as good a life to our children as we’ve been blessed with. 
We need the power of alliances literally with everyone and every country – there’s no going this alone, and there’s no time for political rhetoric. We’ve got to be all-in with renewable energy – electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, you name it, followed by an innovation explosion and a continuation of reduced energy use. 
I’m 66, so I’ll see some of what is coming, but I won’t begin to see the worst of it. Down the road I want my kids to see me in their mind’s eye as someone who fought for them in an epic task. Someone who lived with grit and not by giving in. We need the greatest story of the 21stcentury to be how we solved climate change. 
If you can’t bring yourself to believe this, then stop now and read the above EIS. I learned a long time ago that who the messenger is matters. As the report again and again and again shows, the administration knows exactly what the climate score is. Some people don’t want to face it because they believe it’s political, or they don’t like the solutions, or they believe that we’re not capable of fighting it. But we have to fight it. I don’t care what your political party is. It’s time to step up, all of us, Republicans/Democrats/Independents, and step big.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/28/18

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/28/18 – 10/11/18  

Loons Staging
On 9/20, a local birder observed 47 loons on Trout Lake. She wondered if it was a bit early for loons to be staging, but given that peak migration for adult loons in the Upper Great Lakes begins in mid-October, it seems like a reasonable time frame.
Common loons often utilize staging areas for rest and for foraging prior to their long-distance migrations. Like a 5-star hotel, the best staging areas have abundant prey, clear water, and offer safety. Trout Lake and Fence Lake represent two of our largest area lakes, and loons have been observed staging in large numbers on these two lakes over many years. 
Even though loons often stage in significant numbers prior to migration, loon adults migrate independent of their chicks and of each other, while young-of-the-year loons remain on their natal or adjacent lakes until near freeze-up.Usually by late November, however, most have arrived in their wintering areas.  
Based on extensive banding efforts as well as the implantation of satellite transmitters, researchers in New England and the upper Midwest now better understand loon migration routes. The loon populations of the Upper Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin – “our” loons – migrate along the southern Great Lakes and then use an overland migration route to the Gulf of Mexico. They typically first use the Great Lakes as staging areas, and then often gather along the way on large reservoirs in Tennessee and Alabama. Some even choose to over-winter on those reservoirs.
A 25-year statewide dataset in New Hampshire shows that 17% of the fall loon population is comprised of young-of-the year, a percentage likely accurate for our area as well. 
The juvenile loons will remain on their wintering sites, finally returning in their third year to near where they were raised. 

Sightings: Snow Geese
            On 9/20, Bob Kovar photographed a small flock of snow geese mingling with a flock of Canada geese on one of the cranberry marshes in Manitowish Waters, an unusual sighting for our area these days. Snow geese were once a common sight locally during migration – the Powell Marsh master plan from 1979 describes “dramatic and large flocks of migrating geese” descending upon freshly burned areas in the early 1950s to graze on tender green shoots. It goes on to say “Powell Marsh is within a major flight lane for both Canada and snow geese.”

photo by Bob Kovar

            Well, times have changed for snow geese, which now migrate either well west of our area or simply wave as they pass over the state. “Wisconsin’s” birds are part of a Mississippi Flyway population that breeds in the eastern Arctic and winters along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas. Most snow geese now overfly Wisconsin on a direct flight to the Gulf from staging areas on James Bay. If they do stopover, the best areas to see them are at Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area, Horicon Marsh, and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.
I asked Bruce Bacon, retired DNR wildlife manager, why they now fly over our state rather than stopping, and he says it’s mostly because they migrate much later in the year, often not until late November. That’s because of a change in farming practices in Canada from fall plowing to minimum tillage, which leaves a lot of crop debris, and thus food, in the fields. The snow geese now can forage much later in the fall in Canada, and then when they finally have no choice but to migrate, most hightail it through our area to the Gulf.

Better Water Clarity Increases Property Values 
In a recently released study examining the relationship between water clarity and property values on 60 lakes in Oneida and Vilas Counties, the researchers found that home prices rise as water clarity improves. Using actual home sales data, they determined that within Vilas and Oneida Counties, an improvement of water clarity by 1 meter increases average home sale prices by 8 to 32 thousand dollars. 
The study was conducted by Dr. Thomas Kemp, Head of the Economics Department at UW Eau Claire and was funded by a grant from Lumberjack Resource Conservation & Development. See “The Impact of Water Clarity on Home Prices in Vilas and Oneida Counties, Wisconsin” which is available from the Vilas County Land & Water Conservation Department.

Migration Numbers
            Cornell Lab of Ornithology researchers researched data from 143 weather stations from 2013 to 2017 to provide the first large-scale counts of migratory bird activity across the United States. They estimate an average of 4 billion birds pass from Canada across the northern border of the U.S. in autumn, with 2.6 billion birds returning to Canada in the spring.
            Across our southern border, an average of 4.7 billion birds leave the U.S. for Mexico and points south each fall, with 3.5 billion birds coming back across the border in the spring.

Our first frost in Manitowish occurred on the morning of 9/22, although it was a light frost and didn’t harm our garden like a heavy frost would. From my records for Manitowish since the late 1980s, our shortest growing season was in 1993 when our last frost of spring was on June 21, and our first frost of autumn was on August 12, giving us a 52-day growing season.     This last decade has consistently given us frost-free days until well into September, and even into October. While this is good for gardens – we still are picking ripe tomatoes – it’s also a clear sign of a warming environment.

Red Pine Fire Data
            Over the years, I’ve led many hikes in the Frog Lake and Pines State Natural Area which is just across the Manitowish River from our house. One place I like to take folks is a point on Frog Lake where several old red pines have big fire scars at their base. I’ve often wondered about when the fire, or fires, occurred. This summer, I learned that Jed Meunier, an ecologist and research scientist with the WDNRstudying forest and fire ecology, took one partial section from a living tree on the point and by examining the rings, found the following dates:
Pith: 1805. So, the tree is now 213 years old.
Fire scars: 1833, 1846, 1855, 1864, 1877, 1895, 1909.
            These dates are remarkable in that European settlement in our area didn’t occur until the 1880s. So, how did these fires occur? Is it likely that there could have been a natural fire occurring nearly every decade for eight decades? 
I think not. The data suggest instead that the native Ojibwe were consistently setting ground fires in this area. Why? I suspect for berries, particularly blueberries. Just about every collectable berry species in our area only grows in full sun, and consistent fires would have kept both the canopy and the groundlayer open enough for all berry plants to dominate.
Fires also create a “fresh bite” – new plant growth that would be ideal for desirable wildlife species like deer and rabbits. 
Ojibwe elders have told us that they burned areas south of Lac du Flambeau so frequently that it was a “prairie.” Fire research like Meunier’s will help corroborate that, though nearly all of the big trees that could have given us that fire data via their growth rings are long gone. I’m eager to see additional data and analysis as he learns more.

fire scar on a white pine in the Frog Lake and Pines State Natural Area

Fall colors
            Mary, Callie, and I hiked along the Escarpment Trail in the Porcupine Mountains on 9/24 and saw very little color change. That’s normal, however, for fall colors along Lake Superior to be a week or more behind the rest of the Northwoods given the moderating effect of the world’s largest lake. 

Fall colors in Wisconsin’s Northwoods have been coming on slowly. As of 9/24, Boulder Junction reported 20% of peak, Eagle River 15% of peak on 9/19, Hayward 20% of peak on 9/24, and Manitowish Waters 20% of peak on 9/20. Not that long ago, most area chambers of commerce ran their fall “color-ramas” right around fall equinox – 9/22 – but that’s usually too early these days. The peak of fall color in New England and the time of leaf drop both occur about eight days later than they did 25 years ago, and I suspect that’s right for us, too.
Expect peak color this fall in the first week of October.

Celestial Events
            Planets in October: Look for Mars, in the SSE at dusk, Jupiter in the WSW at dusk, and Saturn in the SSW at sunset.The Draconid Meteor Shower peaks during the evening of 10/8, coinciding with the new moon, so viewing should be good. This is a modest meteor shower, averaging 10 per hour.
            On 10/11, look for Jupiter 4 degrees below the waxing crescent moon. 

Thought for the Week
“I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”– L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/14, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for September 14 – 27, 2018
Sightings: Monarch Butterflies and Sandhill Cranes Staging on Manitoulin Island, Ontario                                              Mary, Callie, and I just spent a week in Ontario visiting Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula, both of which are located on far northern Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. On one of our days on Manitoulin Island, we did an exceptional three-mile hike along the shoreline of Misery Bay where we were rewarded in numerous ways, but perhaps most remarkably, we found ourselves in the midst of the monarch butterfly migration. A steady stream of monarchs passed by us throughout the late morning and early afternoon.

do you have any idea how hard it is to capture a picture of a flitting monarch in migration? 
          It’s one thing, of course, to intellectually understand that something happens, but it’s another thing altogether to experience it. We watched as they flitted this way and that, going three times the distance they would cover if they just flew straight. And we considered in amazement that they still had some 2,600 miles to go to reach the oyamel fir trees of Michoacan and Mexico states. The very fact that they only weigh about half a gram - 0.017 ounce – and they have the strength and resilience to fly all that way overcoming whatever the weather throws at them is truly astonishing.
We also found along the shoreline a number of dead monarchs, each having succumbed to some malady early in its migration. I wonder if there’s an estimate of how many monarchs begin migration and how many actually survive the flight.
          Misery Bay is a 2,400-acre Provincial Park Nature Reserve that is famous for its alvar communities – expanses of exposed bedrock that appear as flat pavement with scattered boulders. These rare ecosystems are found only around the Great Lakes and Baltic Regions of Europe and Scandinavia, and Misery Bay is considered the best representative of these rare ecosystems in the world. Alvars support a large number of rare species, including 19 vascular plants, 3 species of lichen and mosses, 4 species of reptiles, and at least 9 species of insects.

          I have to admit we knew virtually nothing about alvars before we arrived, but now we know that Misery Bay supports 7 different alvar communities. In fact, Misery Bay supports 20 different vegetation communities, as well as 448 species of vascular plants and 88 species of non-vascular plants. It’s a plant lover’s dream come true, and we just stumbled upon it through blind luck.
I should also note that a warbler migration was happening that same day, so between the plants, the butterflies, the birds, and the beauty of Lake Huron, our heads were on a swivel.

Mary Burns on the alvar

          A few days earlier, we also were surprised to see many hundreds of sandhill cranes congregated in various farm fields. They were so numerous that we were seldom out of earshot of their bugling. Manitoulin serves as a staging area for sandhills prior to their migration, and by early October, many thousands will be present. And then one day, off they’ll go, nearly all headed for wintering sites in Florida.         
          One last series of fun statistics: Manitoulin Island is the largest freshwater island in the Great Lakes at 1,068 square miles, and, in fact, is the largest freshwater island in the world with 108 islands of its own. Lake Manitou, a lake on Manitoulin Island, is also the largest lake in a freshwater island in the world. And to take it even further, Treasure Island is the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake in the world. Got all that?
          The island is a continuation of the Niagara Escarpment, which runs south from here forming part of the Bruce Peninsula on its way to Niagara Falls. Six Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) reserves are scattered around the island, and archaeological excavations have found a site dating back at least 9,500 years.  A treaty in 1862 opened the island to settlement, but was not accepted by the native community, so a reserve was set aside and remains unceded. Called the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, this is Canada’s only unceded reserve.

Sightings on Bruce Peninsula, Ontario: The Oldest White Cedars in Eastern North America and Rare Fen Plants         
          After three days on Manitoulin Island, we took a car ferry to the Bruce Peninsula with the idea of walking sections of the Bruce Trail, which runs along the Niagara Escarpment for 550 miles from Niagara Falls to Tobermory, Ontario. The trail is one of thirteen UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves in Canada, and is Canada’s oldest and longest marked hiking trail. We came in particular to view the ancient white cedars that cling precariously to the Niagara cliff-face. These dolomite vertical rock faces support what are arguably the oldest, most extensive, most intact, and least known old-growth forest ecosystems in eastern North America. “There is nothing like it in Canada,” writes Pete Kelly, co-author of The Last Stand: A Journey Through the Ancient Cliff-Face Forest of the Niagara Escarpment.“These cedar trees have been living on these cliffs for over 1,000 years, including two trees that sprouted from seed before the year 700 AD . . . The oldest of the living trees began life shortly after the death of Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and before Genghis Khan and the Viking colonization of North America.”

white cedars clinging to the cliff face
            Researchers began random sampling on the Niagara Escarpment in southern Ontario in 1998. They created the “Niagara Escarpment Ancient Tree Atlas Project,” surveying numerous cliff areas and finding 73 trees older than 500 year in age, 22 trees over 700 years, and the oldest, a 1060 year-old white cedar at Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula that germinated in 952 A.D.
That was just the beginning. Later research uncovered two cedar trees at Lion’s Head that sprouted from seed in 688 AD. And while that’s stunningly remarkable, the researchers also found a dead white cedar on Flowerpot Island on the northern end of the Bruce Peninsula that had lived for 1,890 years. Plus, they found pieces of wood at the base of the cliffs that started to grow about three-thousand or four-thousand years ago – woody debris that germinated before Tutankhamen was on the throne in Egypt.
          Many of these gnarled, twisted, and stunted white cedars grow at an average of one inch of height every 15 years. Some older cedars have been calculated to be growing at less than one millimeter per year, making them the slowest growing trees on earth. One researcher commented that in the most extreme cases, they appear to be growing at only one cell width per year.
These cedars dance in a very delicate balance of life – the oldest simply can’t grow any faster or they risk losing their foothold to the heavy tug of gravity.
          So, that’s why we came – just to be in the presence of these ancient trees, most of which are so small that no one even considered they could be old until the atlas project was begun.
We were also delighted to walk on level ground along boardwalks on two large fens. Each offered us up-close views of numerous flowers still remarkably in bloom on 9/9, including blue-green grass of parnassus (Parnassiaglauca), nodding ladies tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua), smaller fringed gentian (Gentianopsis virgata), Kalm’s lobelia (Lobelia kalmii), and many, many more.
grass of parnassus

fringed purple gentian
Juvenile Reddish Egret on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario         
           Just to put the capper on what had already been a marvelous trip, we were told by a restaurant cashier on our last afternoon on the Bruce about the very rare sighting of a reddish egret in Oliphant, a tiny community just 30 minutes away from where we were staying. It was late in the afternoon already, and we were leaving early the next morning, but we looked at one another and said, “Why not?” So, we went looking for this bird, and, amazingly, we found it shortly after arriving in the general area. It was easy to identify because reddish egrets have a truly distinctive foraging behavior – they chase down fish by running through the water, spinning around occasionally, and spreading their wings to reduce glare on the water, then striking. It’s dramatic and entertaining!
          This was the first reddish egret ever seen in Ontario, and only the third ever recorded in Canada. They’re found primarily in the Caribbean, but also along the Gulf Coast and Pacific coast from Baja California to Costa Rica. Reddish egrets are North America’s rarest heron/egret with only 15,000 to 30,000 known in the wild.
          What this juvenile bird was doing in Oliphant, Ontario, is a secret only it will ever know, but these birds are known for their vagrancy and have been documented in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – I don’t know of any records for Wisconsin.

reddish egret sitting in a fishing boat at Olipant
          I’ve long been puzzled by what causes a tree to form a burl, those knobby, contorted growths on the sides of trees. I love to see burls, but woodworkers positively start salivating when they see one. What makes them so sought after is the way that the grain of the wood is generally twisted and deformed, producing what’s called “figure.”
One author describes it this way, “Visualize a normal grain pattern as parallel strands of yarn. A burl would be a ball of yarn. It’s as though the tree’s cells went haywire and decided to tie themselves into a knot.”
          In burl formation, the tree’s growth hormones get disrupted when the metabolism of the tree is stressed by a virus, fungus, or bacterium, or perhaps by an insect or physical wound. One example is the crown gall bacterium. It carries within it a plasmid, which causes the tree to make special amino acids to produce the burl.
          Burls do little if any harm to the tree. The xylem in the burl is still able to do its job of transporting water and nutrients, though its function may be diminished.
Cutting out burls does damage to a tree since it leaves large wounds that are likely to become infected. If a woodworker wishes to utilize a burl, it’s best to cut the whole tree, turn the burl into a bowl, and use the rest for firewood or boards.

Thought for the Week
“Trees give pleasure to a pilgrim, shade to a deer, berries to a bird, beauty to the land and health to humans, branches for fire, leaves to the soil . . . when I come to a tree I feel a sense of calm, a sense of healing – it is the true sustaining force of the earth. – Satish Kumar

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/31/18

A Northwoods Almanac for August 31 – September 13, 2018   

Sightings: Nighthawk Migration, Green Herons, Northern Flicker Tongues, Oak Galls, Northern Tooth Mushroom, Changing Leaves
            Nighthawks began migrating last week and will continue to pass through our area for several more weeks. They migrate in greatest numbers in the early evening, but may be seen anytime during the day. Look for a white bar on the underside of their sharply-pointed wings, and note their often erratic, moth-like flight. Common nighthawks are usually solitary, but they often form large flocks during migration – flocks of a thousand or more on occasion!
Sarah Krembs has sent me an array of marvelous photos of two juvenile green herons that she has worked hard to photograph in Presque Isle. These uncommon and inconspicuous herons are hard to spot at any time, much less to get good photos of the young-of-the-year. The chicks fledge after 21 or so days in the nest, but the parents continue to feed them, as well as begin to teach them how to fish. Their independence is estimated to occur between 30 and 35 days. Green herons are known to use 15 different foraging techniques: standing, baiting, standing flycatching, head swaying, neck swaying, walking slowly, walking quickly, scanning, feet-first diving, foot stirring, foot raking, plunging, diving, jumping, and swimming feeding – eating everything from invertebrates to crayfish to snails to rodents to frogs to snakes to fish. 

photo by Sarah Krembs
Most intriguingly, they also have been observed to bait for fish using a variety of lures like crusts of bread, mayflies, and feathers. One bird dug earthworms from the mud and used them as bait, and twice birds broke pieces of stick to make bait, an example of tool-making. 
Hannah Dana in Arbor Vitae sent me a photo of a flicker that had unfortunately flown into her garage door and died. She observed that it had a “spaghetti-like coil which came from within its beak.” She did some research and “found that flickers (like hummingbirds) have a long tongue with a velcro-like tip for catching ants. It protruded 2-3" from its bill, and I wondered where the tongue goes when the bird is alive and not eating. There is a hollow area in the skull above the occipital area and the tongue coils up like a window shade . . . Every day I am amazed about the engineering of nature and this one is at the top of my ‘awe’ list.” 

On any given drive in September, you’re likely to kick up flickers alongside the road as they are “anting” – looking for ant hills – in the gravel. Ants are the primary food of flickers – they forage by probing and hammering in the soil with their powerful bills. But they also eat beetle larvae and a variety of berries like wild black cherry, poison ivy, dogwood, and sumac from late fall to early spring. 
We’ve been seeing numerous oak galls on the ground in recent weeks. These odd structures are typically initiatedin early spring and are caused by chemicals injected by certain kinds of gall makers, the majority of which are tiny wasps. All sorts of shapes and sizes of galls exist from the more than 700 species of gall wasps have been documented in North America. 

The galls provide a protected enclosure for the development of the insect larvae and a source of concentrated food for the developing larvae. Perhaps the most common oak galls seen in our area are oak apple galls. They’re large (1- to 2-inch diameter) rounded growths that are filled with a spongy mass, but which dry to a dry papery thin wall.  A single wasp larva is located in a hard seed-like cell in the center. 
            Sally von Zirngibl on Papoose Lake sent me a fine photo of a northern tooth fungus, or what is also called northern shelving fungus because it looks like a disheveled unit of shelving. Northern tooth causes heart rot in maples where it is most commonly found. Heart-rotted trees make for poor lumber, but make great habitat for cavity-nesting birds and denning mammals. As always, value is determined by what lens one chooses to look through.

            Leaves are changing, and acorns are falling! September is upon us, and the whole machinery of the plant world is starting to shut down or dramatically reducing its photosynthetic capacity. No frosts yet, which is great for gardens, but not an attribute historically in the Northwoods. Anyone need a zucchini?

Plastic Straw Ban
A plastic straw ban movement is sweeping through the country, in large part due to a disturbing video that went viral of a marine biologist extracting a crusty plastic straw from the nostril of a live sea turtle. 
In just the U.S., one estimate suggests 500 million straws are used every single day. One studyestimates as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches. 
The real issue, however, isn’t straws, but single-use plastic. Plastic pollution is now a global environmental crisis, most notably in our oceans. To date, we have produced 9.2 billion tons of plastic, of which 6.3 billion tons were not recycled, and since plastic takes over 450 years to fully decompose, it’s a genuine problem.
Many millions of pounds of plastic end up in the ocean every year, a number which is expected to double by 2025. Wildlife are killed by ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic, but plastics also decimate coral reefs.Plastics also create help create dead zones where nothing can live, and they damage human health in the form of microplastics entering the food chain. 
Some folks have derided banning straws as ineffectual or as environmentalists going off the deep end. They have a point regarding its effectiveness – of the tons of plastics that flow into the ocean every year, straws comprise only 0.025 percent. So, a straw ban won’t solve the problem of ocean plastics. We truly need a more ambitious, global solution.
            However, banning plastic straw bans is easy to do (non-plastic straws work fine), doesn’t cause any economic upheaval, and constitutes one step toward the ultimate goal of ending the circulation of single-use plastic. It’s a starting point.

Vanishing Loons
A recent blog post by Walter Piper (see:“Loons are hanging in there better than many other vertebrate animals . . . Breeding populations are now generally stable or even increasing across most of the northern tier of United States. My study area in northern Wisconsin is typical; loons have re-colonized many lakes in the past few decades from which they had retreated. So, loon populations are thriving despite extensive shoreline development, entanglements with hooks and fishing line, and increases in methylmercury levels, among many other challenges.”
On the other hand, “A new anthropogenic threat [climate change] now looms that is more extensive and unrelenting than others that loons have faced . . . The northern Wisconsin loon population (and abutting populations in Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula) exist on an isolated ‘finger’ that projects southwards from the heart of the range, which lies in Canada. The model (see a very bleak picture of the future loon population in northern Wisconsin. According to the model, loons are projected to be much less abundant in northern Wisconsin by 2050 and gone altogether by 2080.
He offers a word of caution, as all good scientists should, about all projections: “It is difficult to project precisely how the geographic range of the common loon might be affected . . . Audubon scientists have attempted to distill the climate down to two main factors: temperature and precipitation . . . Their projection is likely to provide a crude estimate of the impact of climate change on loons, not a precise one. That is, loons are likely to cope with climate change better than most other birds – as they have other environmental threats. Then again, loons might be especially sensitive to climate change and retreat northward more rapidly than the study predicts.”
I recommend reading the entire blog post, because no species is more emblematic of the North Country than the loon, and its loss is not negotiable.

FSC Certified Products
Last weekend, as part of a group organized by Partners in Forestry, we paddled to the Tenderfoot Preserve, and I had the opportunity to paddle with Bob Simeone who was instrumental in establishing the certification of wood products via the Forest Stewardship Council. I’ve known about the FSC for a long time, but it was little more than an acronym to me. With Bob’s help, I’ve learned that the Forest Stewardship Council is an independent, non-profit organization that has established voluntary standards for responsible forest management. The FSC has used the power of the marketplace to protect forests through certifying responsibly managed forest products, and is considered the gold standard in forest certification.
Within its certification process, FSC has instituted a “Chain-of-Custody” paper trail which traces the path of wood products from the cutting of the forests through the supply chain. The chain-of-custody recognizes that between the forest and the final user, products typically undergo many stages of processing and distribution, and all the steps need to be certified as sustainable for consumers to be assured that what they are buying is being handled in the right way.
FSC forest management certification also specifically confirms that a particular forest is being managed in line with FSC principles and criteria, of which there are 10 principles and 57 criteria (see! Each forest is then regularly audited by the FSC to ensure that it is being managed to those standards. Today, more than 380 million acres of forest are certified under FSC’s system, including more than 150 million acres in the US and Canada. 
Bottom line: buy products when you can that have the FSC label on them. Examples include Kleenex, Office Depot Multipurpose Paper, and Cottonelle toilet paper, among many others.

Celestial Events
            Look for brilliant Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter all at dusk very low in the southwest, and Mars at dusk in the southeast.
            Say goodbye this month to our days being longer than our nights. As of 9/6, we’ll be down to 13 hours of daylight.
            The new moon occurs on 9/9. Look on 9/13 for Jupiter four degrees below the crescent moon.

Thought for the Week
From Bob Simeone, professional forester and co-founder of The Forest Stewardship Council: “The Forest Guild was borne out of . . . the idea that there is far more we don’t understand about the forest systems we manage than that which we do. The ideal behind ecological forestry is adaptive management, meaning that we must first identify our base assumptions, and then think about— 
·      the things we think we know; 
·      the things we don’t know; 
·      the things we don’t know we don’t know; 
·      the things we think we know but don’t know; 
·      the things we know but don’t want to know; and 
·      the things we don’t know but wonder about . . .”